A tank-sized red and spotted pumpkin: not an obvious spot to enjoy a sunset drink, but Naoshima is an island that challenges expectations.
It sits on the Harima-nada Sea, a body of water nestled between Honshu (Japan’s mainland) and Shikoku (the southern island). Naoshima’s history is not unimportant, but is predictable. A dwindling economy once associated with a Mitsubishi refinery, old age pensioners and a small fishing industry centred around Yellowtail and seaweed.
Perhaps its because of this that a hungry visitor can still enjoy of bowl of udon noodles with a slab of tempura for £2. Naoshima’s port cafe has a workmanlike atmosphere. The silence is only broken by clattering chopsticks and prolonged, thick slurps. We finish our bowls, mutter a timid ‘arigato’ to the cook and take our leave.
Before we know it we are passing exhibitions containing Warhol, Hockney and Monet. We arrive at Honmura, the northeast port, and discover a place with entire buildings transformed into pieces of art.
The Statue of Liberty rears up through two stories of an old dentist’s office. A flooded, gloomy living room is lit up by a vast sea of numbered LED lights. Ice-cube steps descend from a shinto shrine into a reimagined burial chamber. It is spectacular and surprising.
But how did Naoshina go from seaweed to international art destination?
Enter Chikatsugu Miyake, then incumbent mayor of Naoshima, and Tetsuhiko Fukutake, founding president of Benesse Corporation. In the late 1980s, these two men conspired to create an educational and cultural space on the island that launched with the opening of Benesse House Art Museum in 1992. Since then, numerous installations, galleries and festivals have taken place within the fourteen square kilometers that make up Naoshima.
If this smacks too much of gentrification, fear not. Not only has this brought money and jobs in from tourism, but the art is often designed to be ingrained in the community and enjoyed against its natural dramatic landscape.
In Honmura for example, artists have restored and rejuvinated disused homes back to their original states. The fact that these are dotted around the community is intentional: it is to encourage interactions and the passing of ideas between all different sects of society. As we make our way around we do find ourselves nodding, bowing and chatting.
Some of the exhibitons themselves are also contributed to by the pre-existing inhabitants. This in turn has galvanised the residents here who take up varying causes such as the Naoshima Rice Growing Project which has brought rice cultivation back to the island after a hiatus of a few decades.
They have even given over their beloved bath house to become an art installation. The fact that it still works and offers affordable prices probably helped sweeten the deal too. It seems like this carefully managed project is working for everyone involved.
As we explore Naoshima’s perimeter on foot and bike, we can see out as far as Teshima, another island to where the art initative has spread. The views from the hills here are at least rival to the archipelago ones found in Thailand or the Med.
But the real stars of the show bookend Naoshima; a yellow and red one at either side of the island.
Exploring doesn’t always need to be about mountains, forests or rivers. A pair of giant, fluorescent pumpkins also suffices.
N.B. There is an island bus but Naoshima is best explored by foot and bike. Bikes rent for ¥300-¥500 from the main ports for the day. Electric bikes (¥1000) might not be a bad idea as some of the hills are quite steep. Mopeds also available. Some areas do not allow bikes of any kind, so keep an eye out for designated parking areas.